Tomatillo Trial at Sophie’s Patch
For the last four years one of my favourite summer crops has been the tomatillo, pronounced ‘tomateyo’. Over this time I have become better at growing them and understanding the diversity of ways they can be used in the kitchen. So much so that in the last few years, my aim has been to grow and freeze as many of this interesting fruits as I do tomatoes.
Just to recap what tomatillos are like, they produce green fruit which eventually turns purple, encased in a husk or capsule that looks like a Chinese lantern. They can be eaten fresh when green or purple and I think taste like a cross between a plum and tomato, definitely sweeter than a tomato. They are the traditional fruit used in South America to make ‘Salsa Verde’ (green salsa), however when you cook them I notice they add a lovely sweetness to a dish, making then perfect for sweet curries, stews or soups. I love them roasted (served with ice-cream) and we have made a delicious cake from them too. They are a member of the tomato family related to Cape gooseberry and ground cherries (two fruits which I am yet to manage to grow despite numerous attempts!?) and are also known as Mexican husk tomato, husk cherry or jam berry.
They are an annual vegetable so need to be sown each year into warm soil like tomatoes and produce pretty yellow flowers, with attractive green foliage which seems to be fairly disease free. They are poorly self fertile, so you need to plant two to three plants to get them to fruit. While they can be direct sown, due to my short growing season I plant seedlings so I can get a bit of a head start and space them 50-60cm apart. The plant itself grows as a floppy bush 1-1.2m high and I still haven’t worked out what is the best way to grow them. I have tried them in rings of mesh like many people grow tomatoes, in long rows where the sides are supported by mesh to make a long narrow cage, and just left them to their own devices sprawling all over the ground and it seems to work either way.
You harvest them when the fruit is large and full in the casing, and even starting to split the casing, or leave them till the casing starts to brown off. I find that it is best to remove these casings within a day or so of harvesting, just in case there is split on the skin of the fruit, or insect such as an earwig within the casing which will then cause injury and make a fruit start to go off. When you do this you will notice a sticky coating on the fruit itself, which apparently tastes bitter and is meant to stop insects trying to eat the fruit (doesn’t always work in my experience!?). The peeling is the time consuming part of handling them, so I usually do it when I am sitting down to watch a movie. Give your fruit a good wash and this stickiness comes off. Then the fruit can be dried off and actually sit around in a cool room for several weeks till you get around to processing it.
Last year when visiting the amazing Rowan from Garden Larder, a wholesale seed producer who supplies Eden Seeds, I happened to mention my love of tomatillos and was astounded to find out that she grew three special cultivars of them, apart from the normal one which I grow, which is relatively rare anyway. So this year I planted four different varieties with the intention of doing a tomatillo trial and working out which one was best.
The reality of this experiment is that a few things went against me…… some of my own making and some due to our harsh year which meant that I had less than five months of growing season. It started with late planting due to late spring frosts (and me getting too busy) so they didn’t go in till mid to late December; then we had a killer summer; then their delayed fruiting due to my late planting was followed up by reduced growing season due to early autumn frosts. All in all it was a poor year for tomatillos at my place, however I got enough fruit from the varieties to be able to do some review of them and to be excited to try again next year …….. and be more organized to get them in on time an protect them from early frosts.
So here are the varieties I grew:
This seems to be the common green variety which can still have a flush of purple. While some of its fruits can be 4-5 cm across, at the end of the season I still go through and harvest anything from around 1cm upwards as while these smaller fruits may not be so sweet, they still make a great addition to savoury dishes.
This is an unusual yellow variety of tomatillo that is sweet, rather than the savoury, tomato-like flavour of other tomatillos. It is recommended that you harvest them when they split their skins and they were definitely sweet rather than sharp, however I have read that some people don’t like their after taste. Unfortunately I didn’t get enough fruit to be able to make a cake from this ‘Amarylla’ and compare it with cakes made from the normal ‘Verde’ to see which is nicer. Next year……
Tomatillo ‘Plaza Latina’
These are big tomatillos which instantly appeared to me as I thought the more fruit you get per husk, means faster harvesting and less peeling. Apparently the fruits can get up to 10cm across and while I did get some big ones I was too excited and ate them before I had a chance to weigh or measure them. They also ripen quite a lot later than the normal variety so again I need to make sure I have seedlings ready to get planted in early November with frost protection, rather than leaving them till December. In hind sight I realise that due to the weight of their large fruits, this variety would better with support from the mesh cages. Most of the large fruits also split which indicates that I let them dry out, or that they required more water than the other varieties. Next year I will keep a better eye on this variety with regards to watering.
Tomatillo ‘Tiny from Coban’
This is an unusual tiny variety of tomatillo that is unusually savoury flavoured, however the fruits are less than 1cm across which means a lot of work when it comes to harvesting. Also the skins of this variety don’t split when the fruit is ripe so you simply harvest by feel and sampling. Apparently if you peel the fruits and leave them in a light position, the fruit will start to colour and turn purplish improving the flavour. Next year!
This is another variety which is available as seed although I have not as yet grown it, so this coming spring I will also try to grow these and see how they compare. Apparently it’s mature fruits are around 3-4cm across with a dark purple skin and a sharper flavour than the green. Stay tuned!
Trial observations and notes to self…..
One unofficial observation I made was that ‘Amarylla’ and ‘Plaza Latina’ were affected by our first light frost before Easter, while the plants of ‘Verde’ and ‘Tiny from Coban’ didn’t seem to be affected, even though fruiting slowed right down. I have also read that if you don’t pick up all the fruit and let some fall to the ground, they can self seed next year and become a weed, however I have not noticed this in my garden where I have often left the damaged or tiny fruit on the ground.
While I aspire to do proper trials at my place, my attention to detail often leaves something to be desired, and I didn’t think through where I planted all four varieties as I put them all in neighboring beds around my citrus grove. This means that the plants I grew would all have cross pollinated and I can’t collect seed from them. So next year I shall grow them in different areas of my garden, separated by distance and lots of flowering plants to distract the bees, and then I can then reliably harvest their seed.
Every trial has an aim, a process and a conclusion, so what was my Tomatillo Trial conclusion this year? To do it properly and better next year!? Oh well…… We still got lots of fruit and as I write this I have a stack of tomatillo cakes in the freezer, a number of 2 litre containers of frozen tomatillos in my freezer, and four bowls of tomatillos on my kitchen table still to be processed.